Broken Ties: The Dismal State of Marriage among Black Couples and the Impact on Black Children Are Fueling New Research and Reframing the National Discussion about Family

By Gray, Katti | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, October 29, 2009 | Go to article overview

Broken Ties: The Dismal State of Marriage among Black Couples and the Impact on Black Children Are Fueling New Research and Reframing the National Discussion about Family


Gray, Katti, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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Jabari Colon's 5-year-old daughter Ayana leads a promising life. She attends a good kindergarten, resides in a nice neighborhood, lacks none of the essential material things, and gets her pick of age-appropriate cultural and social events in her Pennsylvania town. Yet, when she falls in step with other cheerleaders for the local pee-wee football league, Colon, a single parent, notices how much his daughter stands out.

"I see her clinging to the grown-up females, the other cheerleaders' moms. She's naturally outgoing, but seeing her, clinging, very much concerns me," says the 30-yearold assistant director of admissions at Cheyney University.

The legal custodian of his only child, Colon never married his daughter's mother, who lives in Virginia and spends time with their daughter sparingly, Colon says.

Reared in a household with married parents, Colon knows parenting solo isn't ideal. As the number of people choosing to marry has plunged during recent decades, the tally of children living with one parent and having limited or no contact with the other has soared. Attuned to the hazards that such separations impose upon children but also upon parents who, studies show, fare physically and emotionally better in a thriving partnership, researchers around the country have been eyeing anew the state of marriage and the wellness of families outside of the marital construct.

Hampton University, as one example, inaugurated in September a National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting by hosting its two-day National Summit on Marriage, Parenting and Families. There, Hampton researchers released their "marriage index," citing what they view as troublesome trends. The tally of married Black people, aged 20 to 54, slid from 64 percent of the total Black adult population in 1970 to 39.6 percent in 2008, a period when marriages for all races declined from 78.6 percent to 57.2 percent. During the same period, the number of births to married Black couples dropped from 62.4 percent to 28.4 percent, while the respective figures for all races were 89.3 percent and 60.3 percent.

Just 29 percent of Black children lived with their married parents in 2008. Many children living in single-parent homes face sometimes staggering obstacles: They are more likely to endure poverty, 50 times more likely than children in two-parent homes to be abused and they tend to perform worse academically.

"There is a worsening crisis, and this crisis not only has implications for our children but for men and women in our community," says Dr. Linda Malone-Colon, Jabari Colon's mother and the Hampton University psychologist who founded the new center. The Institute for American Values, a New York think tank, is Hampton's main research partner.

A National Discussion

For its part, the Princeton University-based Fragile Families and Child WellBeing study, launched in 2007 and continuing through 2010, is probing and collecting data from 20 cities on the lives of 5,000 children, two-thirds of them born to unmarried parents.

Concurrently, related research from Yale University, released at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in August, re-confirmed the much-bemoaned marriage prospects for high-achieving Black women. Those born after 1950, according to that longitudinal study by Yale's Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course, were twice as likely as White women to never have married by age 45. Given their preferences for a Black mate of similar academic and workplace pedigree and the comparative shortage of men fitting that profile, many of those Black women have forgone marriage and motherhood.

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The complexity of issues surrounding Black marriage and family is fueling more research but also reframing the national discussion about family. Gaining momentum since the 1990s welfare overhaul, that reframing takes into account racial and class distinctions. …

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